By Farhad Manjoo
There are days now when you can almost forget about the virus. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are still being infected with COVID-19 daily — an average of about 361 Americans died from it every day in the last week — but after more than two years and millions of lost lives, the pandemic has given way in headlines and breaking-news crawls to older and more familiar atrocities.
Across much of the United States, the rhythms of life have returned to something like their pre-pandemic tempo. Bars and restaurants are packed, there’s a wedding boom, and Memorial Day weekend looks likely to kick off a busy summer travel season.
But remember how giddy we all were for a virus-free summer last year? It was in May 2021 that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised that Americans who had been vaccinated could take off their masks and forget about social distancing in most settings. Then, during a successful campaign to vaccinate millions of Americans, the White House began preparing a Fourth of July bash to declare a “summer of freedom” from the virus.
You know how that turned out. America’s vaccination rate was too low, and just when we thought we’d licked it, COVID wriggled free. First the delta variant spread widely, then omicron and its many subvariants. Masks were ordered back on. Boosters were soon recommended for people older than 12. And in the year since what was once billed “hot vax summer,” about 400,000 more Americans died from COVID-19.
This is not a column about the dangers of prematurely declaring victory against the pandemic. Few American health officials are urging anything but caution and vigilance now.
But last summer’s rapid COVID turnabout does illustrate a dynamic that I worry we have yet to internalize: Any peace we’ve reached with the virus may be only a temporary, uneasy one. It seems likely that, at least for the foreseeable future, our lives may continue to be upended by the whims of this wily, unpredictable virus, until we can advance against it.
And it isn’t just our health that’s at stake. I worry that COVID’s very unpredictability could inject volatility into global affairs. It’s been remarkable to watch how the zigs and zags of the pandemic era have confounded not just public health officials and the Biden administration but also the Federal Reserve, the Chinese government, hedge funds and some of the world’s largest businesses.
How can humanity effectively plan for the future if the virus keeps pulling the rug out from under us? From the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve heard about adjusting to a “new normal,” but COVID’s malleability suggests it may not be one new normal we’ll have to get used to. And as long as the virus keeps swerving in unpredictable directions, it may continue to rock our politics, shock our economy and hinder our ability to work collectively to address every other major problem humanity faces, especially global threats like climate change.
The basic problem is that especially since the emergence of the omicron variant, it has become painfully clear that while vaccines prevent severe illness and death, research shows that even vaccinated people can keep getting sick from COVID-19. The elderly, unvaccinated, immunocompromised and others at high risk may continue to face greater danger.
Even though far fewer people are becoming seriously ill from the virus than at its peak, consider the level of disruption to daily life that we may continue to face — the labor shortages brought on by sickness, burnout and overwork, the toll of stress and psychological fatigue on a population that has had little respite from the ever-present danger of disease.
And because the effects of the virus will play out in different ways in different parts of the world, the disruptions could ripple erratically across the globe. China’s troubled zero-tolerance approach to fighting COVID has snarled ports in Europe and the United States and forced some carmakers to suspend production.
Of course, it isn’t just the virus that has undermined global stability. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and extreme weather exacerbated by climate change are also roiling the world’s economy.
But look at just about any economic story these days, and you’ll see the pandemic playing some mischief. Robert Califf, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told a House panel this week that a COVID-19 outbreak caused a delay in the agency’s inspection of the Abbott Nutrition plant implicated in the national shortage of baby formula. Another lapse was “likely due to COVID-19 staffing issues” in the FDA mailroom, Califf wrote.
Eventually the world will adapt to COVID’s tricks. Nasal vaccines that are now in clinical trials may be able to curb transmission of the virus, which could deal a blow to COVID’s many variants. Wider access to therapeutic drugs could make catching COVID less risky and disruptive. And after a few years, perhaps the virus’s waves may settle into a seasonal pattern that we could adapt to living with.
Over the next few years, though, we may be in for a bumpy COVID ride. New variants have proved more contagious. People are burned out on doing much to avoid it. And we have no idea what the next variant may unleash upon a world already thoroughly pummeled by the disease.